Transformative, Evidence-Based Ideas

How Cities Can Help Parents Navigate Public School Choice

At CRPE we’ve always believed it’s not preordained that all kids will benefit equally from more choices among public schools. Like any public policy, the results are likely to depend upon an array of complex factors: how savvy and well informed parents are about choosing a school, the availability of talented, mission-driven school developers, access to public transportation, how the choice laws are designed, the willingness of district and charter oversight agencies to step in when the market fails, etc.

Many smart people have speculated about what it would take to make choice work for all families, but until this week, no one had taken an empirical look at how the parent experience varies in cities where choice is becoming the norm. No one has tried to understand what factors might help or hinder a high-functioning choice environment.

In the spring of 2014, my colleagues Ashley Jochim, Mike DeArmond, Betheny Gross, and I surveyed 4,000 parents in eight ‘high-choice’ cities—Baltimore, Cleveland, Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. We compiled the findings in our new report, How Parents Experience Public School Choice, which is the second in CRPE’s Making School Choice Work series.

Cover of our newest report
Cover of our newest report

We found that parents in these ‘high-choice’ cities are aggressively taking advantage of school choice when it is available. In seven of the eight cities, half or more of parents are choosing a public school other than their assigned neighborhood school. Clearly, when parents get the opportunity to choose, they take advantage of it.

But we also found that parents have vastly different experiences when choosing a school for their child. And while some cities are improving parents’ ability to choose with confidence, we saw that each has work ahead to ensure that every parent can find the right school for their child.

As with nearly all public schools surveys, parents from all types of schools across all high-choice cities reported very high satisfaction with their current school. But when we pressed and asked whether parents had other good options, stark differences emerged. At the high end, 60 percent of Denver’s parents agreed they have other good public school options, but only 40 percent of Philadelphia’s parents felt this way.

Three cities—Denver, New Orleans, and D.C.—that have invested a lot on developing high-quality schools, closing low performers, and developing transportation, information, and common enrollment systems to help parents navigate their choices, saw some good results. More than half of all parents in these cities reported that their cities’ schools are getting better, compared to less than a third of parents in Baltimore, Cleveland, and Philadelphia. Parents were the least likely to report transportation as a barrier in New Orleans, the only city where most non-neighborhood-based public schools provide transportation. Eighty percent of parents in D.C., and 79 percent of parents in New Orleans reported prioritizing academics over safety and school location. In other cities, where not all families are able to enroll in safe and accessible schools, smaller proportions of parents reported choosing based on academics. Parents in these cities are likely making difficult trade-offs between academics, safety, and location.

No city looked good on every front, however. There is much more work ahead to make choice work, especially for parents with less formal education, minority parents, and parents of children with special needs. Parents reported struggling to get the information they need, even in cities with comprehensive parent information systems.

In every city, parents with a high school diploma or less were not as likely as parents with a bachelor’s degree or more to report choosing on the basis of academic quality and were more likely to cite safety and location as salient concerns. In New Orleans and D.C., black and Hispanic parents were much less likely than white parents to report optimism that schools are improving. In Baltimore, parents whose children qualified for special education services were 52 percent more likely than parents whose children do not qualify for special education services to report trouble finding a school that fit their child’s needs.

The data in this report will hopefully spark a rich debate about why the results vary so much by city and by parent type, and what should be done to help all parents realize the opportunity that school choice presents.

My view is that, to some degree, what we’re seeing is similar to what I saw when I studied post-communist societies: an emerging marketplace of educational options where people are learning by trial and error to be smart consumers, where school providers are becoming more attuned to consumer needs, and where government is taking on a new role of regulating, not running everything. At the same time, government policies and both private and public investment matter. Private and public sector leaders in cities that have poor results should look for ways to attract high-quality providers and encourage talented local educators to develop additional high-quality schools. Cities should also work with school providers to develop better transportation options for those seeking a better school. City leaders should invest more heavily in information systems to help parents make more informed choices.

Leaders in all of these cities need to pay more fine-grained attention to which families are losing out in the choosing process and figure out creative new ways to help them. Immediate attention needs to be paid to less educated parents and those whose kids have special needs. What’s also clear is that the cutting-edge investments made in cities like New Orleans and D.C.—common enrollment systems and comprehensive school information systems to make choice more navigable for parents—are only the start of the supports that cities need to put into play.

Choice rarely makes choosers worse off. Still, the results of our study are important reminders that making all families better off is a more elusive goal. Each city must determine whether community-led action, private investment, government intervention, or some combination of all of these is needed. Each city must determine which kinds of parent information and transportation systems will most effectively help the broadest range of families.

As the eight cities we investigated and other high-choice cities continue to mature and evolve, we have an unprecedented opportunity to learn from their experiences. Listening to what families have to say is a good place to start.

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